Category Archives: High Holidays

The Grand Subpoena: To Attest and To Protest Too

“Attest” and “protest”: on these two stands of human conscience the civilized world depends. They are central to this week’s reading, Atem Nitzavim.., “You stand…,” a reference to the way we rise in a courtroom to offer testimony — to tell, as the saying goes, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” We “attest,” that is, to the truth; but in so doing, we also “protest” the trashing of those truths by people who find them inconvenient.

It is not just truths that are at stake, says Shimon ben Gamaliel (Avot 1:18), but justice and peace as well, for truth, justice and peace are the three things on which humanity stands or falls. At our best, Maimonides explains, we human beings naturally strive for intellectual and moral perfection (truth and peace), but these rely on the prior existence of justice.

Failed attestation gets its fair share of recognition, because the lies we tell, the rancor we cause, and the injustices we engender are seen and heard; they leave a trail to be investigated, reported, and disseminated for discussion.

Failed protestation, by contrast — the failure to protest the moral outrages that other people perpetrate — more easily goes unattended, because observers taking notes on the large but finite number of things that people actually did say or do can hardly know, much less include, the infinity of things they didn’t. A news report on some public statement by the president, say, is simply incapable of including everything that the entire cabinet or congress did not say in response.

But our moral accounting sheet has both columns: “attestation,” the active stands we take, by word or deed; and “protestation,“ the passive stands we failed to take, when other people were saying or doing what we knew to be wrong. The first, Yom Kippur will soon remind us, are sins of commission; the latter are sins of omission.

Commentators regularly observe that the word “you” (atem) in “You are standing” (atem nitzavim) is followed by “all of you” (kulkhem) — leaders and followers, household-heads and their entire families. The Torah, seemingly, cannot close without each and every Jew being subpoenaed to stand before God. This was, says Ramban, a renewal of the Sinai covenant, but with everyone on hand, not just Moses alone atop the mountain. Kli Yakar goes further: it was an altogether new covenant, he says, because the old one failed, in that the people who were not personally alongside Moses at the time felt no responsibility for it.

In particular, says Or Hachaim, their failure lay in the second column of moral responsibility: protestation. Hard as it may be to speak truth, act justly, and seek peace, it is infinitely harder to go public against those who don’t: we risk displeasing them; we may even benefit from their actions; and besides, no one will notice, much less report, if we simply choose to turn our backs, keep silent, and go about your business. The Talmud, however, warns expressly that those who fail to protest against the sins of their household, city, people, and nation are punished for those sins, as if they had done them themselves (Shabbat 54b).

Don’t we hold the average collaborators of the Shoah guilty of this very sin? Not that they all personally dispossessed, enslaved, and ultimately murdered their Jews, but that they failed to protest when others did so.

Rosh Hashanah falls just one day after Atem Nitzavim this year. However much we gobble up apples and honey while wishing each other sweetness, we should remember that on Yom Kippur, just ten days later, we will stand, “all of us,” to be held accountable for the balance sheet that measures how we did in humanity’s search for truth, justice and peace. The easy part is what, in word or deed, we wrongly attested to. The hard part, but no less important, is what we should have protested, but didn’t.

 

 

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Not Knowledge But Wisdom

We confuse knowledge with wisdom. “Knowledge” derives from demonstrable facts: the facts of science, for example, which no serious and informed person can reasonably reject. We may debate alternative interpretations, but the debate will be demonstrably knowledgeable.

Some knowledge arrives less scientifically: how we know someone loves us, or the way a brilliant portrait catches the essence of its subject. These things too are “knowledge.”

Wisdom is something else altogether. It is insight into living deeply and well. All the knowledge in the world need not add up to wisdom, and wisdom can come from someone with no formal education whatever – “out of the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes (from Psalms 8:2, actually).

Religion converts knowledge into wisdom. A scholar may be exceptionally knowledgeable about the Talmud. The same scholar becomes your rabbi , however, only if that knowledge supplies wisdom also.

The S’lichot  service, this Saturday night, anticipates the High Holidays that begin just a few days later. We label them “high” because of the wisdom, not the knowledge, they provide. Take sermons, for example. Packed only with knowledge, they fail. What we want from sermons is wisdom, that we may live better.

So too, High Holiday prayers offer wisdom, rather than knowledge. Sh’ma koleinu  (“[God], hear our voice”), for example, is a central S’lichot  prayer. The searcher after knowledge questions scientifically if God can really hear, and, if so, how God does the hearing. “Renew our days, as of old,” the prayer continues. The seeker after knowledge is skeptical: Can we really recover the days of our youth?

As knowledge, these prayers fail.  God is not a super-human being with extra-sharp hearing; and the past is really “passed” – it is unrecoverable.

Yet the prayer remains “true” as wisdom. “God,” said theologian Henry Slonimsky (1884-1970), “is the Friend we suppose to exist behind the phenomena.” Behind the phenomena, note! Beyond what science studies. God is, alternatively, a “power making for righteousness,” according to Matthew Arnold, whom Slonimsky liked to cite, and who influenced Mordecai Kaplan to define God as “the power that makes for salvation.”

Wisdom relies on proverb, poetry and metaphor: language that is evocative more than it is descriptive. That God should “hear our voice,” Slonimsky insisted, expresses “the demand of the human heart” that our voices of pain and aspiration deserve being heard.

“How tragically inadequate the response,” he conceded, knowing full well that prayers may not be “answered.” But nonetheless, “we are so convinced of their utter righteousness, we will not take no for an answer.”

Here lies the wisdom of the High Holidays: the insistent cry of the human spirit. We are not so constructed as to be slavishly accepting of anything less than what this spirit instinctively demands: righteousness and justice, truth and goodness; we will fight to the end that these may prevail.

That same human spirit, however, is part and parcel of the universe, part of evolution itself, as if something about the universe is supportive of the spirit’s insistence. That “something” is the “Friend behind the phenomena” in Slonimsky’s words, the “power making for righteousness” for Matthew Arnold: what we normally call God.

The seemingly endless praying on these Days of Awe add up to more than the meaning of any given prayer. The experience as a whole reaffirms not just what God wants from us but what we demand of God: Yes, “righteousness” above all! Yes, “justice” and “truth” too. The human heart is certain of these certainties. It is our very nature to live with purpose derived from the promise that these will triumph.

We acknowledge (“knowledge,” that is) that our trials and tribulations may persist even after the prayers are over. But the wisdom of prayer is no less certain. Our lives are not for naught; we are part of something greater than whatever it is that pains us. We have a voice that demands being “heard”; and yes, we can feel ourselves renewed “as of old.”